Serene and elegant, the fourth-century B.C. Dama de Elche is not only the pinnacle of ancient Iberian sculpture, but she has become a symbol of Spain and Spanishness—an image of august detachment and reticent beauty intrinsic to Iberian royalty before Rome conquered the peninsula. The Dama, for many, is the spirit of Iberia in stone. But is she for real?

Within a few days of the discovery of the 2-foot-high sandstone bust in 1897, it was purchased on behalf of the Louvre by the distinguished French archaeologist Pierre Paris. The Dama remained in France until World War II, when it was returned to Spain—where it now is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

No one questioned the Dama’s authenticity for a century. In 1995, however, art historian John F. Moffitt of New Mexico State University published a controversial book called Art Forgery: The Case of the Lady of Elche (University of Florida Press), in which he claimed that the Dama is a forgery created by a 19th-century Valencian artist to fool Pierre Paris. Moffitt argues that the bust was a form of sculpture unknown in fourth-century B.C. Iberia, and that the Dama’s state of preservation is improbable for a work of art supposedly produced in antiquity. In two places, he notes, the sculpture has been chipped, but the surface remains white, unlike the gray surface of the rest of the statue. How could these white spots have remained pristine for millennia? Why do they not have the same gray patina as the rest of the sculpture?

Moffitt’s most controversial suggestion—one that has inflamed the passions of many a Spaniard—is that the Dama is too beautiful to be authentically Iberian. He observes that fourth-century B.C. depictions of women were much rougher and coarser. (Indeed, he views most Iberian sculpture—pieces from the Cerro de los Santos, Porcuna and Pozo Moro, among other places—as primitive and ungainly.) The delicacy of the bust’s nose and eyes, Moffitt claims, makes it different from all other fourth-century statues, and therefore suspect. He has referred to the Dama as a fashion model among a group of elephants.

For expressing these views, Moffitt has been roundly criticized in Spain, denounced by newspaper editorial writers and vilified by archaeologists and art historians. One Spanish scholar even suggested, presumably in jest, that Moffitt was a CIA agent dispatched to undermine Spanish culture. The attacks have often been personal. Despite the bad press, Moffitt continues to argue that the Dama is a forgery.

Author Ricardo Olmos disagrees. He claims that some artistic details definitely date the bust to the Iberian era. According to Olmos, the slight asymmetry of the Dama’s face and dress is characteristic of fourth-century B.C. Iberian sculptures; this asymmetry is apparent, for example, in the Dama de Baza (see photo of Dama de Baza in the accompanying article), a statue depicting a seated woman wearing jewels and amulets and holding a blue bird in her left hand. The Dama de Elche simply could not have been carved by a 19th-century forger, Olmos argues, because such iconographic details were not known then. A hundred years ago, no forger could have rendered the tiny clasps on the Dama de Elche’s tunic, or captured the careful way in which her clothes drape over her left shoulder.

As of this writing, the National Archaeological Museum is planning to conduct tests on the stone and its patina to help confirm the bust’s authenticity. Also in the works is a detailed survey of an ancient stone quarry near Elche where many Iberian sculptures were produced.